Babies know how to feed and they know when they need to feed, and they give clear signals to let their carers know their needs – these are called Feeding Cues. These cues or signals progressively intensify as baby’s need to be fed increases. When baby signals or “cues” he is hungry, has a feed and self-releases and appears to be satisfied – then cues again, and again over a period of several hours is often called “Cluster Feeding”.
When is it most common? Baby’s periods of repeated feedings often coincide with physical and mental developmental stages which are sometimes referred to as wonder weeks. The periods of increased need to feed in the first 6 months are fairly predictable – typically occurring at 2-3 days when baby is “calling the milk in”, usually again around 2 or 3 weeks, again at around 6 weeks, very commonly around 3 months and again around 6 months of age. However, it is also common for babies of all ages to “cluster feed” for a period of the day – typically in the late afternoon or early evening. At this time of day mother’s milk supply is usually less abundant and baby instinctively feeds more frequently, which stimulates her breastmilk production as well as meeting baby’s hunger for food and also comfort during periods of fussiness.
What is the best way to deal with cluster feeding? A breastfeeding mother’s prolactin (milk making hormone) levels are naturally highest at night time and early morning. The breasts’ response to frequent stimulation and draining later in the day is to increase milk production overnight, continually adjusting to meet baby’s growing needs. Giving supplementary feeds during this time will interfere with the mother’s body’s response to this natural process, so it is important to avoid giving formula feeds to babies who are cluster feeding. Mother’s body will adjust in sync with baby’s changing needs if she follows and responds to baby’s feeding cues.
How to combat pain and fatigue associated with cluster feeding? How long does it last? To facilitate the adjustment of mother’s milk supply during a period of increased feeding she may need to abandon whatever plans she had for that day and ‘just feed the baby’. If she has missed a lot of sleep overnight because of a feeding frenzy, she should go back to bed with baby and feed him as he demands. Her body will respond by adjusting her milk supply within 24-48 hours. Cluster feeding is not only about the volume of milk, but also baby’s nutritional needs. It is important to understand that the constituents of the breastmilk will also adjust in response to the baby’s changing needs. How this happens is still not fully understood, but nature provides perfectly for growing babies. Calling in help with household tasks and the care of other children will enable the breastfeeding mother to rest more and focus on her baby’s need for feeding and comfort, enhancing her body’s ability to fulfil nature’s wonderful design. Lois Wattis, Midwife & Lactation Consultant